What Happens When You Stop Ringing Bells?

Posted By Derek Nance on Sep 13, 2016 | 2 comments


In the year 3 BHE (Before Handbell Era), my mom and I decided that I would play French Horn in the beginning junior high band. The band director at my junior high, Doug Beasley, was an incredible Horn player with the Las Vegas Philharmonic, so it made sense to try and learn the Horn under his baton. There was only one problem. His first comment to me was “Aren’t you too small to play the Horn?” It was true. In sixth grade I hadn’t had my growth spurt yet, and the Horn loomed over me when I held it on my leg ready to play. But somehow I made it work.

A very young Derek playing the Horn. A very young Derek playing the Horn.

While I played Horn continuously until I graduated college, the pinnacle of my Horn career was my senior year of high school. After playing Horn 2 in the pit for 13 sold-out performances of “Beauty and the Beast” I had lips of steel. There were always people who were better than I was, but I could hold my own. After I played the recessional at my own college graduation (wearing the robes and everything), I put away my Horn and never touched it again.

That is, until this past spring.

6 years after I played the last note of that graduation ceremony, I pulled my Horn off the shelf, unfroze the valves, and joined the Reno Pops Orchestra. Each set the orchestra has open rehearsals, so I popped in to see what my chops were like. I was a bit shaky, but I still could make it through.

However, there were some interesting side effects of only playing handbells for so long:

  • Key Signatures: Actively remembering what key we are playing in has become quite a challenge. In the handbell world, once you acknowledge the key and get the right bells in your hand, that information moves to the back of your brain because it doesn’t really matter much. If an “A” comes along, you play the “A” in your hand and the right “A” comes out. The only time you have to access that information is when an accidental appears. But even then, you just switch back to the old bell when the accidental disappears without thinking too hard about what the bell is. In Horn playing though, you have to actively be on top of the key at all times. Keys like B, Db, and F# make my head hurt now.
  • Missing Notes: When playing bells, you get use to tracking all the melodies and harmonies on the score around your notes. But when playing Horn, you only have your notes to look at. Not only does that get boring, it means you have to listen hard and guess where your notes fit into the ensemble.
  • Rests: Plus with all the other notes gone, you have to actually count rests. Lots of rests. Especially in Horn parts.
  • Breathing: Remembering how to breath again to play a wind instrument is a challenge. Breathing from the diaphragm is not a skill I use in most situations, so it doesn’t come naturally any more. We do have to remember to breath while playing bells, but not that seriously.
  • Ledger Lines: In bells we get good at reading ledger lines above the treble clef and below the bass clef. Horns read most of their notes in treble clef, but we routinely dive below the staff 5 or 6 ledger lines. Sometimes the engravers will spare us and switch to bass clef, but usually not. I can’t pick those notes out on the fly anymore, which leaves me awkwardly counting lines in the middle of the orchestra.
  • Tuning: How do I do that again? And remind me why we tune to the oboe…

However, I love playing Horn. One of my favorite things in the world is when all four Horns soar over the top of the orchestra together on a beautiful Horn call. That’s one thing handbells can’t do.

Don’t worry, I won’t be leaving bells anytime soon. But after years of perfecting my ringing, having another musical outlet again is a great way to keep pushing myself as a musician.

What weird side effects have you noticed switching between handbells and other instruments?

Cover Photo: “French Horn” by Sadie Hernandez on Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons License